Navigating Newsrooms as a Minority

 

I have experienced racism in the newsroom. This hasn’t surprised me. I have been black my whole life, so racism has been a fixture of my whole life.

What has surprised me, as someone who transitioned to journalism from other work, is that I’ve encountered racism more frequently in journalism than I did in previous professions. I have had colleagues assume I attended schools racked with gun violence. I’ve seen a coworker slip horrifically racist comments into a work chat, only to rapidly delete their words (I can only assume they had meant to send the comments as a direct message to someone else). And I have had to push back against edits that reinforced racist stereotypes.

My experience is not unusual, as I’ve discovered after talking to other journalists who are of color, queer, or both. Their experiences include colleagues assuming that any person of color in the newsroom must be part of the cleaning staff, aggressive attacks on their background, and unjustified doubts about their professional qualifications.

I’m lucky to work in a place with strong worker protections; it means that I feel able to speak relatively openly about the experience of what it means to be a minority in journalism. But that isn’t true for everyone. Many people I talked to for this article agreed to comment only anonymously.

Their worry makes sense: A 2015 Columbia Journalism Review analysis found that minority journalists are more likely to leave the profe­ssion than their white counterparts. Separately, research reported in the Harvard Business Review found that newsroom layoffs disproportionately involve people of color and white women, and that people of color are penalized for speaking out about diversity.

The lack of diversity in newsrooms is bad for journalism. To take one historical example: In 1968, the Kerner Commission found that the media had failed to report on the causes and consequences of civil unrest that had sparked riots across the United States, and on the underlying problems of race relations in the country. The commission recommended integrating newsrooms. But fifty years later, media outlets—including those that cover science—are still far less diverse than the society they report to. Creating a newsroom that is comfortable to all its members, including minority journalists, isn’t just a moral imperative: It’s necessary for good journalism.

 

The Daily Toll of Bigotry

Among the most common experiences minority journalists face are instances in which white colleagues fail to realize that their perspective is not universally shared. In the case of editors, that lack of awareness can translate to culturally insensitive edits. Yessenia Funes, a Latinx environmental-justice reporter at Earther, recalls an experience at a previous job. She quoted a source who used the word “ratchet.” The word, which originated in Louisiana, is a regional variation of the word “wretched,” meaning trashy and rude. But Funes’s editor edited the term out, saying that “ratchet” is not a real word.

“That’s literally what the person being quoted said,” says Funes. “To try to alter someone’s words just because they don’t meet, you know, a white reader’s expectations was just bizarre to me.”

More explicit incidents of bias in newsrooms are also common. One black journalist I spoke with described washing her lunch tray in her newsroom’s kitchen when two colleagues approached her with a maintenance question. They assumed that she was a member of the janitorial staff, “because the cleaning staff is all black,” she says. There’s nothing wrong with janitorial work, but there is something wrong with a newsroom where white staff can assume that’s the only role a black person could hold.

Another journalist I interviewed told of reporting in a predominantly white community and receiving a phone call from a reader who casually dropped the n-word. “I recall them saying something in passing, like she was talking to a friend, about ‘niggers’—kind of being like ‘those people,’ essentially. And I remember tensing up and being like, ‘Well, what do I do here?’ Because she doesn’t know that I’m black.”

The journalist didn’t address the comment, she says. But when she hung up the phone, she headed to the bathroom and cried. “I didn’t know what to do with the emotion,” she says.

Many journalists talk about how difficult it can be to speak up when incidents like this occur, because they don’t want to be labeled a troublemaker or see colleagues downplay their experiences, or simply because they don’t know what to say in the moment.

Science journalist Bahar Gholipour learned this the hard way. At one job years ago, a colleague told her she should not do a video project because of her Iranian accent. “That really shook me,” Gholipour says. She didn’t respond to the person who made the comments, but says the incident made her ask herself: “Is this a shortcoming? Does this mean that I should not ever look into things like becoming a radio host, or do podcast or video?”

No, she decided after some introspection, she would not let that person derail her goals.  “You kind of learn not to let that affect you, and maybe even [to let it] encourage you and empower you,” she says.

Gholipour was quicker to react the next time she encountered prejudice, this time at a scientific conference in 2017. A journalist she had never met before told her she didn’t belong in the United States, even though she is a citizen. “She was like, ‘Go back home, go back to your country.’ And I was like, ‘No, this is my home,’ Gholipour recalls. “It really escalated quickly.”

 

The psychological cost of being the only minority in a newsroom, or one of only a few, is often subtle.

 

For those of us who aren’t always quick-witted, practicing how to react when confronted by bigotry can be helpful. One reporter says she is “all for turning it around and making them feel awkward if I can.”

One way to do that is to give a deadpan “Yes,” “No,” or “Maybe” answer to a comment that would ordinarily call for a longer answer. A simple, puzzled, “What did you mean by that?” or “I don’t get it” is another technique that works well; it works because bigoted comments often rest on unstated assumptions that people would prefer not to confront or spell out.

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The psychological cost of being the only minority in a newsroom, or one of only a few, is often subtle. It can contribute to vague perceptions of exclusion or to a sense that your work is being measured by a different yardstick than that of white colleagues. The latter is borne out by research: A 2015 study in the National Bureau of Economic Research found that black people are often held to a higher standard in the workplace than white people are. This subtle phenomenon is why one black reporter told me that “racism can make you paranoid.”

Journalists from other minority groups experience other versions of this sensation. One Asian American journalist describes having felt ignored at National Association of Science Writers conferences early in her career. “But I can’t tell whether it was because of ‘quiet Asian’ stereotypes or because I was a grad student / early-career freelancer who tends to be ignored anyway,” she told me in a private message. “It was better for my mental health if I didn’t let myself wonder if I was being perceived as another ‘boring’ Asian who left science to do science writing.”

 

Different Yardsticks

For journalists of color, what can be doubly infuriating is that our identities seem to mark us as not only less capable of reporting on general topics but also on issues that affect our own communities. If you are white and speak a foreign language or have lived in a foreign country, that’s often seen as a type of expertise that adds to your ability to report and write stories relevant to that culture. But if that knowledge comes from growing up as, say, a person of color who is the children of immigrants, it’s often another story.

One Asian American student journalist I spoke with recounted the experience of a journalism school classmate, also Asian American, who’d uncovered a story about a local Asian business. But their professor didn’t allow him to report the story, saying the reporter’s ethnicity made him biased. The professor instead assigned that story to a white student—whiteness often being seen as neutral, instead of as an identity with its own perspective and, yes, biases.

But even if reporters are allowed to write stories about their own communities, the perception of bias can persist. Confronted with this type of situation, “you get around it with facts,” says a reporter who is black and frequently writes about issues related to environmental justice. When someone calls her biased, she says, she asks them to point to things in her story that are unsubstantiated by data; they usually are unable to do so.

 

In conversations with minority journalists about coping with this disparity, variations of the phrase “be twice as good” come up repeatedly…. But just being better isn’t enough—it helps to keep reminding your editors that you’re excelling.

 

If anything, journalists from underrepresented groups learn early to inhabit multiple perspectives and worlds, code-switching to suit their environment. “It’s almost [like] when you go to a hairstylist,” says one reporter who is black. “The black hairstylists can do white and black hair, but the white stylists can only do white hair.” But in the newsroom, it’s often the equivalent of the white stylist who gets most of the credit and opportunities.

In conversations with minority journalists about coping with this disparity, variations of the phrase “be twice as good” come up repeatedly. “I just kept trying to keep my head low and just try to keep working … like, be twice as good,” says one African American reporter whose editor singled him out for extra scrutiny.

But just being better isn’t enough—it helps to keep reminding your editors that you’re excelling. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve been given by a journalist of color is to keep a running list of what I have worked on recently, what I am working on now, and any impact that my reporting has had or awards or media appearances that it has generated. Once a week, I try to send that list to my editors, to remind them of my value. I’ve also learned that it is better not to assume that your editors will submit your work for awards and anthologies; whenever possible, submit your own work.

I’ve picked up these strategies from other journalists of color, and their advice has been invaluable. Discussions and support can be a form of catharsis, allowing us to relive and make sense of traumatic moments in a safe environment. “As a black person in a predominantly white space, you learn how to—I don’t want to say suppress your feelings, but you learn how to keep a poker face until you can go somewhere to break down,” says one reporter.

 

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Finding Help Carrying the Load

For a lucky few, that safe environment may even be a newsroom. Funes and freelancer Cara Giaimo have each worked in newsrooms where they were part of the majority—Funes at Colorlines, a publication with an explicit focus on communities of color, and Giaimo at Autostraddle, a website for queer women.

They say those experiences gave them perspective that they carried into mainstream newsrooms and helped them frame what they view as acceptable. “When you’re working at a news site that prioritizes race, it’s just always a clear, intentional thing that is mentioned throughout the day,” Funes says, but “it doesn’t really get talked about much in white newsrooms.”

If your newsroom isn’t committed to diversity, other sources of help are available for journalists of color, including professional organizations such as the National Association of Black Journalists and the Native American Journalists Association, as well as informal Facebook groups, Slack channels, and side events at conferences. (Many such groups and events aren’t necessarily secret, but neither are they typically widely advertised; most journalists of color learn about them by word of mouth.)

 

Working through issues of identity and workplace experiences of racism is important. But you can choose if, when, and how to engage with those issues—including whether and when to devote energy to educating others about racism in journalism.

 

These groups, says one journalist, help us “carry the load a little bit. It still sucks that we have to carry the load. But I’m thankful that, at a bare minimum, we have created spaces for ourselves.”

Working through issues of identity and workplace experiences of racism is important. But you can choose if, when, and how to engage with those issues—including whether and when to devote energy to educating others about racism in journalism.

One reporter, a queer woman of color, declined to talk to me for this story because she said she needed a break after weeks of attacks on her identity. As a journalist, I was disappointed. But as a human, I applaud her for prioritizing her own well-being.

 

 

As another reporter of color put it: “If I need to say something—like if it is a big enough reason—then I’ll do it. But a lot of times, it’s like, Girl, I ain’t got time to like teach you how to be a good person.”

I share that perspective in many ways. I don’t always have the time or patience to educate people on the nature of racism and how it’s reflected in their behaviors. If someone at work routinely says and does racist things, I won’t necessarily call them out on it. Instead, I put them in my mental box of “racists” and navigate my interactions with them accordingly. It is not my job to change their hearts. It is my job to make sure they don’t get in my way.

I focus my energies on pushing for diversity in my stories and participating in panel discussions and radio shows so that more people can see that journalists—even science journalists—can look like me. I also talk to students at colleges and journalism schools, and this summer I’m working with high school students of color in New York City. If I have to say no to one of these opportunities, I suggest other journalists of color. Sometimes I would rather be at home just watching The Expanse or, you know, sleeping. But we make the road so others won’t have to.

 

Courtesy of Kendra Pierre-Louis

Kendra Pierre-Louis

Kendra Pierre-Louis is a climate reporter for The New York Times and the author of the book Greenwashed: Why We Can’t Buy Our Way to a Green Planet. Before joining The Times she worked for Popular Science. You can keep up with her writing on her website or on Twitter @KendraWrites.

2 Comments

  1. Pingback: How Russians Tried to Suppress Black Vote | journal-isms.com

  2. Fred Fischer says:

    And you are part of making the road — which changes the road. I really liked how comprehensive this article was and how well-supported your points were. I guess the article reminded me how pervasive institutional racism is — science journalism is no exception because there are no exceptions (currently). My link was RELIABLE SOURCES. And your article was my intro to THE OPEN NOTEBOOK. Thank you.

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